Memories of Jewish Life In Boston 50 Years Ago
A very significant book has just been published which can teach us all a telling lesson, entitled The Death of an American Jewish Community, by Hillel Levine and Lawrence Harmon (Maxwell Macmillan Co. Inc., New York, 1992). The community the book talks about is that part of Boston—Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan—where most of Boston's Jews lived decades ago. After a combination of organized black rioting, vandalism, violence, anti-Semitic outbursts and blockbusting, an exodus of Jews took place in just over two years, 1968-70. Today the area is totally black. The death of this Jewish area took place some 25 years before the disturbances in Crown Heights and Los Angeles. Jewish leaders should have learned a lesson and been forewarned so that the survival of Jewish sections elsewhere could be assured. Too many parallels to be accidental can be drawn between what happened in Boston with what happened later elsewhere. It is not, however, too late to learn that lesson, especially when one hears so much about new programs which offer black underprivileged groups "home ownership opportunities." The book encapsulates what this meant in Boston in the 60's: "Under the guise of expanding home ownership opportunities for the city's black community, the heads of 22 Boston savings banks were complicit in establishing a limited and carefully well-defined inner-city district within which blacks could obtain the attractive, federally insured housing loans. Falling exclusively within the defined district was almost the entire of Boston's Jewish community, an unproductive neighborhood for the city's bankers because so many of the residents had paid off their mortgages. By forcing blacks with home ownership aspirations to compete in a limited geographic area, the banks created an eruption of panic selling, blockbusting, street violence and rage." You can clearly see why every Jew concerned with recent events should read and study this book.
In short, the death of Jewish neighborhoods was not part of the traditional "recycling" of ethnic groups, as perhaps was the case with Harlem, which 70 years ago was considered an affluent Jewish neighborhood. (I should know, because when my own grandmother moved from East Broadway on the Lower East Side to 118th Street, my family rejoiced at her social advancement.) No, the Boston tragedy was the result of political and social forces which saw in Jewish neighborhoods an easy target and a solution for placating black demands, to which no meaningful Jewish leadership stood up.
Since I am an eyewitness to the Boston Jewish communities of long ago, before the tragedy unfolded, I see it my duty to share some reminiscences of that long-forgotten period.
When I came to this country in 1940 as a youngster, I had heard about the greatness of Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik and wanted to visit him. My good friend Walter (Zev) Gotthold, whom I had known since childhood and whom I still meet regularly in Jerusalem, was a student of Rabbi Soloveitchik's as part of a small group of yeshiva men, mostly recent arrivals from war-torn Europe, with whom the Rov tried to form a yeshiva. I took the train to Boston just after Succot. At this point I must tell a comical story: My English at the time was less than sufficient, as were also my finances. On the train I boarded the restaurant car and took a look at the menu. The prices were staggering: $1 or $1.50 for most dishes (this was at a time when The New York Times cost 3 cents, a bottle of milk cost 8 cents and letter postage was 3 cents). I scanned the menu for something affordable—there it was: "dressing—15 cents." I had never heard the word "dressing" and did not know what it meant, but the price was attractive. I pointed at it on the menu to the waiter, who hesitated to take my order, somewhat inexplicably to me. "I insist!" I said. The waiter returned with a tiny jar of dressing on a giant silver platter which he served me with the grandest of dramatic gestures!
During that visit, and again during 1942 and 1943, I lived in Roxbury. The Rov, who had arrived in Boston in 1932, lived in Roxbury, too. He held no official title in town, and his official duties were limited to exercising "hashgachah" on the kashrut of the meat, an assignment he had taken over from Rabbi Eliezer Silver of Cincinnati, Ohio, who had previously included Boston in his supervisory duties. Of course, the Rov was for all practical purposes the Chief Rabbi of Boston. In 1935 he was a candidate for the post of Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv. I own a remarkable document: a letter of recommendation for the Rov by his own father, Reb Moshe Soloveitchik, to the selection committee in Tel Aviv. The 8-page letter is a testimony to the prophetic powers which Reb Moshe must have had: in it he describes in detail the unparalleled talents, qualifications and genius of his son, and predicts his worldwide role as a leader and molder of generations, with his unmatched excellence in Jewish and secular learning. Fortunately for this country, he lost the election, and Rav Amiel of Antwerp was chosen for the position in Tel Aviv.
Boston, as a city, hardly exists. It is really a cluster of towns which since colonial days grew into one urban fabric: Chelsea, Newton, Cambridge, Maiden, Brookline, Charlestown, Sommerville, etc. But to me Roxbury and Dorchester spelled Boston. The only other community of interest to me was Cambridge, where I attended a few summer terms at Harvard University. On my first visit the Rov lived in Roxbury; on later visits I found that he had moved to Dorchester, a somewhat more affluent section then. Today he lives in Brookline.
Roxbury has a main thoroughfare, Blue Hill Avenue, where practically all shops were Jewish-owned, among them the GG Delicatessen, a popular meeting spot for Jews. Many an evening I would meet there with my friends and discuss our respective accomplishments in our studies for the day.
During the three years that I visited Roxbury, I had the privilege to spend much time in the house of the Rov, especially on the Sabbath. There were memorable occasions when a group of us would be taken by him on a walk through Franklin Park. We would then sit down on a bench and listen to his discourses in philosophy, sometimes on Spinoza, sometimes on Greek philosophy, and other subjects as well. I remember one such occasion, when as we sat near the golf course, suddenly a shiny white golf ball landed a few feet away from us. Chaim, the Rov's little son, jumped up, ready to pick up the ball, when the Rov got very agitated and cried out: "You must not touch it; don't take it!" I felt sorry for little Chaim and in the process, forgot to ask the Rov for the exact halachic reasons for his excitement. Thinking that the traumatic incident would leave a mark on the child, I asked Chaim, many years later, if he remembered the incident. To my surprise, he did not.
Once while taking a Shabbat afternoon walk along Blue Hill Avenue with the Rov, he decided to enter a large shul on the spur of the moment. The people in the shut were waiting to daven minchah. The startled rabbi invited the Rov, who promptly walked up to the bimah and delivered a scathing piece of criticism of the rabbi of the shul. I do not remember the subject of the criticism, but the incident showed that the Rov had informal jurisdiction over any Orthodox synagogue in Boston.
I often sat at the Rov's table for shalosh seudos. He would not only talk on Torah learning, but also on philosophy. Soeren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher, was often discussed by him. The Rov had just published his significant essay "Ish ha-Halacha," a masterly portrait of his grandfather, Reb Chaim Brisker. There too, he quoted Kierkegaard. (As a result, a certain Rosh Yeshiva told me he would not even read the essay.)
Tonya, the Rebbetzin, a towering lady with a stern face but full of charm and warmth, was the mistress of the household. Being fluent in Russian she explained to me, as I remember, that the name Soloveitchik means "nightingale." It was she who, as soon as Shabbat was over, went down to get the newspaper of the day. And it was she who almost single-handedly built and maintained the Maimonides Day School which till this day is the leading Day School in New England.
An unusual practice had developed during the war years: after Shabbat, rabbinic and lay leaders of Boston would gather in the Rov's house. He would place a globe in the middle of the living room, and would give his analysis of the war campaigns of the week on the various far-flung fronts in the war against Hitler and Japan. I remember particularly how he predicted General MacArthur's forthcoming campaigns in the Pacific.
Recalling his student years in Berlin, the Rov would often converse with me in German. He extolled Reb Chaim Heller, who also lived in Berlin at the same time as the Rov, as his great teacher. The Rov revered Reb Chaim, especially when it came to knowledge of the Tanach. When Reb Chaim would deliver special public lectures at the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York on Biblical themes, the Rov would come and "sit at his feet," like any other student.
In January 1941, Reb Moshe passed away. I was among the hundreds of yeshiva students who came by bus from the few yeshivos in existence then, to attend the hesped in the Lampert Auditorium of Yeshiva College (now Yeshiva University). One hesped after the other was delivered, but the Rov's own was, of course, the most significant. Some speakers called on the leadership of the yeshiva to appoint Reb Yoshe Ber on the spot as his father's successor. (The powers in the establishment were unmoved, however, and Rabbi Shmuel Belkin was appointed instead.) From that time on, the Rov travelled each week to New York to deliver the shiur to his class. His plans for a yeshiva in Boston evaporated. He was simply not as good an organizer as his wife.
My main memories from Boston of these many years ago concern understandably the contacts I was privileged to have with the Rov. Of course, I understood initially very little of what he said. That understanding grew somewhat with the years. I only regret that I was never equipped to understand him fully. Others were, and his wisdom has been recorded and partially published. He once told me that in his family, the printing of sefarim was shunned. All we have from his grandfather is a thin book holding some shiurim noted down by disciples. Likewise, the Rov has been very reluctant to permit the printing of his lectures and shiurim. If we find a book bearing his name, we must be careful to inquire whether it really has his approval and authorization.
But Boston also offered me exposure to other personalities. At Harvard my teacher in philosophy was Professor Uhlich, whose main call to fame was his wife, Elsa Brandstroem, a world-renowned fighter for human rights during World War I, when human rights were not yet heard of. I had heard of her as the "Swedish Angel of Siberia," because of her work among war prisoners during the War of 1914-1918. When I visited Frankfurt in 1938, I stayed with friends on the Elsa Brandstroem Strasse. I was, of course, thrilled to meet her in person and treasured every opportunity when Professor Uhlich invited me to his home where I could chat with his famous wife in Swedish. I had signed up to take courses in Jewish philosophy under Professor Harry Austryn Wolfson, the famous scholar whose books on Spinoza, Crescas and other Jewish philosophers were classics. However, unbeknownst to me, Professor Wolfson hated teaching and always found excuses for the classes to be cancelled. I remember visiting him in his little office, filled with books, in the basement of the Widener Library. I was flattered when many years later he came to attend a lecture of mine when I addressed the Society of Jewish Bibliophiles in Boston about my own Hebrew manuscript library.
A happy interlude in my life was when I met a young couple, just recently married, who played an important role in my life: Moe and Shirley Feuerstein. Moe had in 1936 attended the same Jewish boarding school in Switzerland which I attended in 1938: Ascher's Institute in Bex-les-Bains, so we shared some common memories. Moe and Shirley not only extended their generous hospitality to me, but also engaged in profound, meaningful discussions. Moe soon became an enduring leader in Orthodox organizations and movements, and was always an inspiration to me, as I am sure also to countless others. I also met Shirley's parents, patrician Orthodox Jews who left a deep mark on American Orthodoxy. The Feuerstein dynasty, starting with its founder, Samuel Feuerstein, is largely responsible for the Torah Umesorah movement without which there would be little Jewish education throughout the 50 states today.
There were very few Jewish students at Harvard in those years. In fact, most of its past presidents had been rabid anti-Semites who kept the quota of Jewish students to a minimum. Orthodox students were practically non-existent. I remember my problem when Professor Demos, my teacher in Greek philosophy, scheduled a writ ten examination on a Sabbath. The Jewish proctor who, under a Harvard system adopted from the universities of England, was part of the teaching staff for the class, refused to listen to my pleas to move the date or to let me take the test on another day. It was only after I presented my case to the Christian Professor Demos that my request was granted. The Jewish proctor simply did not want to call attention to a Jewish concern.
I never returned to Roxbury or Dorchester. When I visited the Rov for a shiva visit when his Rebbetzin passed away, his home was in Brookline. A visit to the old Jewish neighborhood would be too upsetting, I suppose. On top of it I had a personal loss there: In 1952 a crime took the life of Rav Jacob Zuber, who had been my rabbi and a teacher in my native Stockholm, Sweden. A Lubavitcher, born in Russia, he had participated in the underground activities of the Lubavitch network in Communist Russia, till he was called to take up a position in Sweden in 1930. During the War he did a lot to ameliorate the fate of the Holocaust survivors, especially many agunot for whom he found halachic solutions to their plight. For all those years he had dreamt about migrating to America. After the War, his dream was fulfilled. He moved to Boston with his family. And then tragedy struck: he was killed by an unidentified black hoodlum, the first sacrifice in a series of violent crimes which led to the flight of Boston's Jews. A few years ago I helped publish his writings as a memorial to a great scholar and a saintly Jew.
Although the old-time Jewish neighborhoods of Boston are "gone with the wind," as so many other Jewish settlements in our history, Jewish life is prospering and growing in other parts of Boston. The eternal survival of our people is never in doubt.
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